I remember it well. The year was 1999 and I held a record in my hand. There was this strange blurry picture of a woman, I couldn´t see if she was twenty or sixty-four by the picture. I had to turn the cd to see the title properly and I never had heard of her name – “Drag Queens In Limousines” by Mary Gauthier. I read the titles to the songs and made up my mind, and bought the record. I was under my lucky star. Simple twist of fate.
When I got home and put the cd on, I knew it from the first lines – I love Mary Gauthier!
“I Hated High school, I prayed it would end.
The jocks and their girls it was their world I didn’t fit in.
Mama said, “Baby, it’s the best school that money can buy,
Hold your head up, be strong, c’mon Mary, try.”
I stole mama’s car on a Sunday and left home for good,
Moved in with my friends in the city, in a bad neighborhood.
Charles was a dancer, he loved the ballet,
And Kimmy sold pot and read Keroac and Hemingway.
Drag Queens in Limousines
Nuns in blue jeans
Dreamers with big dreams
All took me in”
Her voice went right to my heart and stayed there. That´s the way it is with me. It´s about believing the voice. And this voice had a key to my heart, for sure. I was chocked, because this was a voice with qualities like the greatest country singers – honest and personal, bursting with emotion. But it wasn´t just the voice, it was also the words, perfectly matching the voice without restraint. Modern poetry but in the frames of tradition. There was a dylanesque quality to it. A classic.
“It’s an eye for an eye,
Now you’re gonna die
A tooth for a tooth,
It’s your moment of truth.
There’s no mercy here
Your stay is denied
Go on and pray, pray, pray
You find Mercy in the sky”
(from “Karla Faye”)
I learnt later that the beautiful song was about Karla Faye Tucker, the first texan girl executed since 1863, when she died in 1998, a convicted murder, the year before this song was released. A quiet song full of empathy and love and in a very low-key way one of the strongest songs against death penalty I´ve ever heard, without using slogans and strong words at all.
Song after song rang true. I checked it this was some kind of “greatest hits” compilation, because every song was a little masterpiece. It was not. This was all wonderful new songs, fresh out of Mary´s kitchen.
Sit and think
A few year´s after, Bob Dylan introduced this song in his Theme Time Radio Hour special with the theme “Drinking”. “This girl got an interesting story”, he starts, and in a few words he gave us her dramatic biography, before introducing the song, “I Drink”. After the song, Dylan even read some of the lyrics out loud:
By and by
Sit and think
Mary´s biography makes a beautiful country song of itself, full of life itself, hard life, love, lost love, broken hearts, tears, laughter, light, shadows, loss, hurt, soul searching, human experience, always yearning for love and light.
Mary was born in 1962, left in an infants asylum, adopted when she was one year old, ran away from home when she was fifteen, drugs and alcohol, spent her eighteen year birthday in jail, opened a cajun restaurant, “Dixie Kitchen”, drove drunk at the opening 1990, got sober ever since, made her debut album with the same name as the restaurant in 1998, and in that way started a remarkable career of music, writing and singing the songs of not only of her life, but of Life itself, making her own experience universal, like only the greatest of poets can do.
In 2002, the album “Filth And Fire” was released. I run to the record shop. This time I knew what it was all about. I played the song “After You´ve Gone” over and over again. An instant classic. It´s still a mystery to me that it isn´t made a ton of cover version of this beautiful country ballad of Patsy Cline quality.
A great break-through came in 2005 with the beautiful album “Mercy Now”. It´s a masterpiece through and through. The title song will forever be a country classic, a love song to all mankind. Even Tom Waits played it on a radio show. Now that´s a recommendation to be real proud of!
Even if “After You´ve Gone” might not have been covered as it should, “Mercy Now” has gotten it´s fair share. Fittingly, the great soul singer Candi Staton has made a beautiful version.
So has the talented norwegian singer/songwriter Tove Bøygard in her gifted translation of the song.
Mike Farris has also made a beautiful countrysoul version of the song. He reminds us that this would be a perfect song for Al Green to sing.
The songs of Mary Gauthier is already a part of the great american songbook. Her life story is an inspiration to us all, and her love for life, her touching empathy for people of all kinds reminds us about what life should be all about, and her work for human rights in all kinds, also for the gays and lesbians among us, is part of the impressive story of Mary.
In 2010 maybe the bravest and most personal album of them all arrived, “The Foundling”. About how it all got started in Mary´s life. The story that really can´t be remembered and put to words, is carefully and nakedly written and sung in heartbreakingly beauty and sadness. The voice continues where words is not enough, where words can´t reach. Songwriting par-excellence.
“Day and nights of falling
Thru darkness with no dawn
Baby’s arms quit reaching
Every Mary Gauthier album is worth listening to, and every of them consists songs of eternal quality, even if they´re not equals. You´ll find great poetry and you´ll above all find the heartbreaking & uplifting voice of Mary in all of them.
If you are one of them who don´t know Mary Gauthier from before, I envy you the possibility to get to know her for the first time, drinking all her beautiful songs in big sips. If you are able to see her live, don´t you dare miss it. Her live shows lives up to all promises on her albums, intimate readings, chicken skin music.
Every album deserves to be listened to.
Mary Gauthier is connected to all the great singers and songwriters, both through her voice and through her pen, in both ways connected to the soul of man and to her own soul, and always holding the broken-hearted in her warm hands. We are lucky to be alive at the same time as her.
Mary Gauthier Grammy Museum Interview
Folk Alley Live Recording, 2012